Rejecting Sita: Indian responses to the ideal man's cruel treatment of his ideal wife - A summary

This article discusses the various tellings and portrayals of Sita in the infamous episode of the ‘trial by fire’ or ‘Agni pariksha’ in t...

This article discusses the various tellings and portrayals of Sita in the infamous episode of the ‘trial by fire’ or ‘Agni pariksha’ in the Ramayana. 

The Ramayana still triggers an emotion today due to the raw deal meted out to Sita. Agni pariksha, abandonment of Sita and the retrial to prove her chastity once again are the three controversial episodes have disturbed audiences for centuries.  While some cannot even accept what Rama could have behaved in that manner some feel very passionately about the injustice towards Sita. As a result, the tellings of the episode has various creative alterations designed to either justify Rama or eliminate the episode altogether so as to give the story a happy ending.

This article deals with the only five of the popular tellings of the Ramayana. The first being the Valmiki’s telling where Sita is humiliated by Rama in front the army.  He tells her that she is no more of value to him as he has successfully managed to uphold dharma and avenge the insult caused to him by her abduction.  He goes on to say that he does not bare any attachment towards her and that he has liberated her from wedlock. A hurt Sita, even though in pain, shows a healthy sense of worth and strikes back at Rama telling him that he is behaving like a worthless man by passing a premature judgement. She orders Lakshmana to raise a pyre and throws herself into the flames to prove her innocence and purity. Rama remains silent as the fire god himself saves Sita from being burnt.  The impact that this telling has on society is the introduction of the concept of sati and the connection that the ideal wife is so devoted to her husband that she will burn along with him in his pyre.

The second telling that is discussed is the Kamban Ramayana, which doesn’t soften the harshness of the episode. Infact, its worse as Rama personally attacks Sita by telling her she was born like a worm from the soil rather than being born into a decent family.  Rama doesn’t even say that he believed Sita was always pure and that the trial by fire was just to appease the public unlike in the Valmiki telling.

The third is the Tulsidas telling which justifies the Agni pariksha. After, the violent encounter with Soorphanaka, a war starts out between the demons and the brothers. Just a little before the battle breaks out, Rama secretly tells Sita that she is going to go away for a long time. He then summons the Vedic god of fire, Agni and asks him to protect Sita. The fire takes her in and from the fire emerges a false Sita or Chhaya Sita. She looks exactly like Sita but isn’t the real Sita. Later, when the Agni pariksha is prepared it looks as if Sita’s purity is being tested when in reality the Chhaya Sita enters the fire and the fire god is shown to restore the real Sita. Rama cruel speech does not exist in this telling resulting in no outraged response by Sita.  However, the Ramlila telling which closely identified with Tulsi’s text does not eliminate the cruel speech.

The fourth telling is the popular Doordarshan TV series which handles the controversial points with regard to Rama with extreme kindness.  He is shown to be disturbed by the whole ordeal and seeks the sympathy of the viewers.  It is Rama and not Sita who orders the fire. Unlike the traditional portrayal of Lakshmana where he is an angry but helplessly  obedient brother, this telling portrays Lakshmana standing up for the injustice against his sister-in-law until he is calmed down by Rama who explains “Chhaya Sita” in a flashback.

The folk, feminist low caste,etc  tellings mostly belong 20th century.  Binu Agarwal’s poem highlights the injustices to Sita urging her to finally speak up. The young 20th century women sing as if they are having a conversation with Sita which provides them with an opportunity to express their feelings to the injustice to Sita. In the piece ‘The Brooding Sita’ the poet portrays Sita criticizing Rama for his injustice towards her and demolishing all the justifications put forward. In these tellings, Sita is seen as a person whose sense of dharma is even more inspiring than Rama, someone who can put the most perfect of men to shame.

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